The care with which we safeguard passports reflects the unnerving inconvenience of losing one. The need for such care grew amid the emphasis on the security and integrity of travel documents following the emergence of global terrorism. Security authorities are less understanding these days about the repeated loss or theft of passports that might fall into the wrong hands.
Renewing a passport is therefore an important ritual of identity. So imagine the incredulity among Hongkongers, accustomed to the reliable if bureaucratic ways of the Immigration Department when it comes to issuing SAR passports, at the mess the British passport office has got itself into over a backlog of 500,000 applications. It would have been accompanied by relief that Hong Kong no longer relies on the former colonial power to issue passports. But it was shortlived.
Holders of British National (Overseas) passports who want to renew their documents must submit all valid passports, including those issued by Hong Kong. SAR passport holders have now been denied the chance to travel because their documents are held up in the British bureaucracy for up to four months. The fiasco arises from the closure of British consulate passport offices, including the one in Hong Kong in December, and the repatriation of passport services. It was a cost-saving measure that has upset the travel plans of many.
Applicants can supply copies if a document is needed urgently, or apply for its early return. But it remains ridiculous that people have been grounded by a bureaucratic bungle. Inadequate planning for a surge in passport applications hardly seems a good enough excuse. British Home Secretary Theresa May rightly apologised. This should remind Britain that while some Hongkongers still value the BNO passport as an alternative document, they can't do without the SAR passport for long. It should also prompt them to consider whether they really need the BNO document, given the extent of the SAR passport's visa-free acceptance.